Parishes work to ‘make mercy our paradigm’

"In this jubilee year, may the church echo the word of God that resounds strong and clear as a message and a sign of pardon, strength, aid and love," writes Pope Francis in "Misericordiae Vultus" ("The Face of Mercy"), which instituted the Holy Year of Mercy. "May she never tire of extending mercy and be ever patient in offering compassion and comfort."

In the Arlington Diocese, parishes are planning everything from lecture series to penance services in an effort to deepen parishioners' inward experience of mercy and challenge them to extend it outward as a sign of God's love.

"My hope is that this year and our events will change a lot of people's image of God," said Franciscan Father Kevin J. Downey, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, which has an ambitious lineup of jubilee-inspired programs. "For so many people, their image of God is one who judges," he said. "I'm hoping the emphasis on God's love and mercy" will allow them to "see Him in a new light."

One way Father Downey hopes to accomplish this is through small faith groups, with participants gathering in parishioners' homes. The groups will discuss five mercy-related themes: looking at mercy with new eyes; the challenge of mercy; breathing mercy, or "learning how to make mercy our paradigm, making it as natural as breathing," said Father Downey; mercy and the family; and the church of mercy.

St. Francis also will hold a workshop for its parish ministry leaders and increase its outreach to those who have fallen away from or been wounded by the church. Father Downey wants to offer a monthly penance service, as well.

At St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, parishioners will be able to receive God's mercy through the sacrament of reconciliation. The parish is extending its Wednesday confession schedule from about an hour to nearly all day, offering the sacrament from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

A yearlong lecture series at the parish will highlight the Year of Mercy and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

In Alexandria, St. Rita Church added sung vespers every Friday at 7 p.m., providing parishioners evening prayer that includes recitation of the psalms. "The psalms highlight God's mercy, so a communal praying of them is great for both the individual and the community," said Father Daniel N. Gee, pastor.

St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg is hosting a Divine Mercy parish mission in January, led by Father Seraphim Michalenko, a member of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception. Father Michalenko served as the vice postulator in the canonization cause of St. Maria Faustina, known as "an apostle of the Divine Mercy."

A number of parishes - around 25 have signed up so far - will host an icon of the Divine Mercy that was created in 2006 for the Arlington Diocese in Krakow, Poland. The icon will remain at a parish for one week and be accompanied by three smaller replicas. The replicas will be sent to families, who will pray the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet daily.

St. Joseph Church in Herndon plans to host the icon in early February and later in the month will hold a concert and reflection on mercy with Catholic singer-songwriter Sarah Hart. The evening will conclude with night prayer, eucharistic adoration and Benediction.

A weekly praise and worship group for young adults is planned at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington. Through a partnership with the diocesan Young Adult Ministry Office, "Arlington Worship" begins Jan. 26 and continues Tuesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. Brendan Gotta, young adult coordinator, is spearheading the evenings, which he hopes will include opportunities for confession and adoration.

"The Year of Mercy is not just about forgiving people or outward acts of mercy, which are important," said Gotta. "You can't love others if you don't love yourself, and through this ministry, hopefully in some small way, it will bring inward healing to participants … and help them accept God's mercy and love."

At Holy Family Church in Dale City, Father Gerry Creedon sees the jubilee year as a chance to further unify his diverse parish.

"In an era of intolerance, where various groups in society are at odds with one another, we are making a big effort to bring people together from different cultural groups to experience tolerance, respect and mutual appreciation," said Father Creedon. "I hope the parish community … can be an antidote to intolerance."

"People are seeing all the violence in the world today and they are feeling very vulnerable and very mortal," said Father Downey at St. Francis. Because of such anxiety and fear, it is especially important during this Year of Mercy "to realize that we are facing it all with God," he said. "Our God is all-loving and all-merciful, so we need to be all-loving and all-merciful.

"This is comforting in light of our vulnerability," said Father Downey, "but it's challenging in that it calls us - all of us - to respond to each other mercifully."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015